By Scott Dance, The Baltimore Sun
3:25 PM CST, December 7, 2012
Description: An area of the brain known as the orbitofrontal cortex, already thought to be key in decision-making, is now considered responsible for spur-of-the-moment choices but not for those based on habits, according to recently published research. When a decision requires a hasty weighing of values, consequences and rewards, it is processed in the orbitofrontal cortex. But that area of the brain does not play a role when such a choice has already been made and stored as a habit in the brain.
Researchers involved: Substance abuse researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Joshua Jones, a postdoctoral researcher at the university and research scientist at the institute, was the lead author, and Dr. Geoffrey Schoenbaum, an adjunct professor at the university and chief of cellular neurobiology research at the institute, was the senior author of the research paper.
Stage of research: The research was published in the Nov. 16 issue of the journal Science. It was conducted using a rat model, disabling the orbitofrontal cortex in some of the test animals and measuring how they responded to preconditioned cues. The results showed that the orbitofrontal cortex was needed when a decision required some inference that had not already been cached in the brain. Continuing research is focusing on a closer look at the neurons in the orbitofrontal cortex and the effects of drugs on that area of the brain.
Implications: The results can be generally applied to understanding how the brain processes information in decision-making, but the researchers said it could also help explain addiction and other disorders. The researchers are exploring whether some decision-making problems in addicts may come from damage to the orbitofrontal cortex caused by drug use, particularly cocaine.